Humans of New York: A Case Study in Social Media Viral Content

Humans of New York began in 2010 as a project by Brandon Stanton to take 10,000 photos of New Yorkers. In the beginning, the point of each photo was visual storytelling. Every photo was beautifully composed, colorful, vivid. His first book, published in 2013, was a collection of these photos, but even while it was being published, his style had already begun to shift.

Instead of the photography taking center stage, he focused on individuals. He would ask, while taking their picture, about their biggest fears, regrets, loss. Humans of New York became a series of portraits both photographic and literary. His second book was published in 2015 focused on these stories. Sometimes they were a sentence and sometimes a page, but no longer were they merely visual.

Stanton wasn’t a professional photographer, at least not in the beginning. He had worked as a bond trader in Chicago. When he was fired, he bought a camera and moved to New York to take 10,000 photos of its people.

And so another guy moved to New York to pursue his art. It’s not a remarkable story and it’s likely it would have never been anything but some obscure guy’s hobby that we would never have come to know–except that he shared his work on Facebook.

He began photographing in late 2010, and in two years garnered 60,000 likes. That was a good number, especially in 2012, but it’s nothing to what he has today: 18.2 million. He’s traveled with the UN, to the Met Gala, to the White House to interview to President Obama himself.  Both of his books have been #1 New York TImes Bestsellers.

For a jobless, broke New York transplant, he’s done pretty well for himself.

But once again his creativity has shifted, and this time his audience has not followed along.

In early Fall 2017 he launched Humans of New York: The Series, a weekly Facebook video series (I can’t quite call it a TV show) that tells longer versions of New Yorkers’ stories through video. It is, of course, beautifully shot and produced. The stories are evocative, funny, and personal, just like his photo series. Really, fans of his Facebook page should be thrilled by this development, right? Even more stories! Followers always want to know more about the people whose stories he shares. Now we get know quite a bit more.

And yet, the Series page has only 906k likes. (Just for the sake of comparison, his Instagram account has over 7 million followers.)

Why is that? He’s years into this work with millions of followers around the world and more than a dozen who were inspired to carry out HONY projects in their own cities.

I think HONY is a masterclass in human connection. That is, HONY didn’t gain millions of followers by sharing gorgeous pictures or telling good stories. It gained millions by giving his followers something to connect over. Each photo gets thousands of comments, most of them quite compassionate. And the reason the commenters are kind and empathetic–instead of ugly internet trolls–is that the stories are just specific enough to be universal. Every follower reads a story about him or herself. It’s not about the subject. It’s about me.

The Series is packed with beautiful stories. I’ve never watched a disappointing episode. And yet, they lack that magical quality that the photos have. I see the person telling the story and i’m touched or I laugh. But I don’t see myself, not quite. And with 30 minutes of stories, there isn’t an easy entrance point to a conversation via thread. You can’t name the person in the film (there are no names), and it’s weird to mention time markers. What stuck out to me may not be what what you remember.

If you want your content to be shared, it must be creating connections, building a community. THat’s what great content does: connects you to a greater whole.

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